Braves' outfield battle comes down to three

Published Mar. 28, 2012 9:46 a.m. EDT

Jose Constanza helped energize the Braves last August with his ability to reach base and his speed. His performance appeared to give him a head start on making the team in 2012.

But Constanza has struggled this spring, leaving room for two other backup outfielders – Jordan Parraz and Luis Durango– to play their way into the race for a spot on the opening day roster.

With backup outfielders Matt Diaz and Eric Hinske, who can also play first base, virtually assured of making the team on the basis of their experience, proven power and pinch-hitting skills, we handicap the battle between Constanza, Parraz and Durango for the final outfield spot.

The frontrunner: Jordan Parraz

Parraz, who is 27 years old, has never played in the majors, but he’s proven this spring that he has strong offensive skills, hitting .343 with one home run, six RBIs and an OPS of .909.

He has more power than either Constanza or Durango, but doesn’t have their speed and appears to be limited defensively when he’s in center, which hurts his chances.

But the Braves seem to be trying to accommodate the right-handed hitting Parraz by trying Jason Heyward in center at times this spring. Heyward has appeared comfortable there, meaning Parraz likely has the inside track.

Parraz is a .289 hitter in the minors and hit a career-high 14 home runs in low-A Lexington in 2007. He hit .289 with nine home runs and 52 RBIs in 128 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

The incumbent: Jose Constanza

Constanza, 28, surprised many by arriving from Triple-A Gwinnett last July and hitting .303 with seven steals in 42 games with the Braves. It was the first time he’d been in the majors and he cooled off in September, with only four hits and a .174 average that month after hitting .342 in August.

Based on that experience and his ability to play center field, he was the favorite to earn a backup spot this spring, but Constanza, who is left-handed, has hit only .188 with a stolen base this spring. He also walked only once, giving him a .212 OBP.

Constanza plays center well and might not have as strong an arm as Durango, but the Braves like players they know (Remember, they brought back Matt Diaz last year) and have seen interact in the clubhouse, which could be in his favor.

The longshot: Luis Durango

Durango, who will be 26 on April 23, has big league experience with San Diego and Houston, but hasn’t been able to stick around the majors.

He played only two games with the Astros last year after seeing action in 28 games with the Padres in 2010 and brings a career .292 major league average into this season with seven steals in 39 career games.

Durango and Constanza are basically the same size – 5-foot-9, between 150 and 155 pounds – and basically the same skill set, although Durango, who is a switch hitter, might have a better eye and could be a better base runner than Constanza.

Durango leads the Braves with a .500 average this spring and has five walks, giving him an amazing OBP of .591, but he’s seen only limited action since March 17, with only five at-bats in the past nine games.

He has 10 fewer at-bats this spring than Constanza and 13 fewer than Parraz.